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With margins slim, Weber State basketball hits road for Idaho and EWU

By BRETT HEIN - Standard-Examiner | Feb 14, 2024

ISAAC FISHER, Special to the Standard-Examiner

Weber State's Steven Verplancken Jr. (11) scores past Eastern Washington's LeJuan Watts (4) on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024, in Ogden.

With a four-game win streak in tow, Weber State men’s basketball hits the road this week for a Thursday matchup at Idaho and a Saturday showdown at Eastern Washington.

The Wildcats, with the best overall scoring margin in the Big Sky and second-best in league play, are currently tied for third in the standings. Losses to Sacramento State and Idaho State have all but officially torpedoed WSU’s chances at a regular-season title, sitting four games back of EWU with six games left.

But second place is still very much in play. Nobody puts “finish second” on their list of preseason goals, but it’s a solid mid-February goal given that Weber State was in eighth place two weeks ago.

It’s not an arbitrary aim; No. 2 enjoys the same bracket placement and bye advantage in the Big Sky tournament as No. 1 — those teams play an opponent seeded No. 7-10, then get a day off.

For now, WSU has won four straight to reach 7-5 in league play in a variety of ways: surviving at eighth-place Northern Arizona by rallying in the final minutes to stave off a hot-shooting Lumberjacks team, a decent dismantling of second-place Northern Colorado on the road, a controlled double-digit home victory over seventh-place Portland State, and a grind-it-out, barely-handled home win over 10th-place Sacramento State.

After a poor effort against Idaho State had the Wildcats reassessing things, four straight wins are four straight wins, no matter how they come. WSU has, according to Steven Verplancken Jr., changed a few things in practice to add something to their preparations.

“In practice, we’ve been going hard at each other,” Verplancken said. “If your best guys are going on your best guys, that brings a different type of edge … I think it shows because we’ve been tougher mentally and physically, like tonight (against Sacramento State).”

To reach second place, WSU probably needs to finish no worse than 12-6, which means only taking one more loss. Otherwise, seeds No. 3-6 play the usual three games in three days come tournament time (but avoid the play-in first round).

So the Wildcats (16-9, 7-5 Big Sky) head to Idaho (9-15, 3-8) at 7 p.m. MST Thursday. The Wildcats and Vandals played evenly for about 25 minutes on Jan. 20 in Ogden before WSU started staving off drivers and put a 15-2 run together on the way to a more-than-comfortable 88-65 win.

That was in the middle of Idaho’s struggle to 1-7 in league play. Since then, the Vandals might have found something. UI led several times in the final five minutes before losing 73-70 at Montana, then beat Montana State and Sac State on the road, then mostly kept a road game at first-place Eastern Washington at single digits and trailed by two with one minute left.

So Idaho’s first home game in three weeks will be welcome for a seemingly improved squad looking to end a five-game skid in their second-year arena.

Starting forward Tyler Linhardt (8.3 ppg, scored 11 against WSU) has been out during the four-game surge. Kyson Rose has replaced him (two points in eight minutes against WSU) and totaled 15 points and six rebounds against EWU.

Wing player EJ Neal is also playing more minutes, largely in favor of Trevon Blassingame, and totaled a stellar 35 points on 12-of-20 shooting (5 of 10 from 3) in the last two games.

So the Vandals may look entirely different than they did on Jan. 20.

After that, WSU plays Eastern Washington (16-8, 10-1) at 3 p.m. MST Saturday. The Eagles are 28-3 in their last 31 regular-season conference games and are undefeated at home this season. EWU has won six home games against Division I opponents by an average of 15.6 points per game, though Northern Colorado and Idaho recently came close.

EWU has the league’s best defense and second-best offense. They have five players averaging double-digit scoring: Cedric Coward (14.3 ppg), Ethan Price (12.5), Casey Jones (11.1), Dane Erikstrup (11.1) and Jake Kyman (10.8).

They’re balanced and good on both ends of the floor, and the entire Big Sky has struggled to figure out these Eagles over the last two seasons, with Northern Arizona’s upset tournament win excepting.

EWU has won seven of the last eight against Weber State.


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